Friday 30 September 2016

'The Town' that keeps overcoming the odds

Christy O'Connor

Published 04/12/2015 | 02:30

Andrew Kelly kicked a decisive score for Portlaoise just a few days after the death of his mother in 2013
Andrew Kelly kicked a decisive score for Portlaoise just a few days after the death of his mother in 2013
Portlaoise captain Kieran Lillis lifts the Laois SFC trophy after this year’s county final replay win over Emo

In his book, 'Hungry Hill', Pat Critchley describes the mentality Portlaoise footballers always had when they lined out for 'the Town'. "I never felt we were going to lose, no matter who we opposed or how bad the game situation looked," wrote Critchley.

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"It must have been like what it was to play for Kilkenny. It came from a massive self-belief which grew stronger over the years. We were told 'the Town' never lose county finals, that we never lose replays. We never did."

Emo led by five points entering the final quarter of this year's drawn county final when Portlaoise mounted their comeback and drew the match. A week later, 'the Town' won by 12 points to bag their ninth title in a row. Portlaoise don't lose county finals, especially replays.

Their record in Leinster finals isn't as hot but their record in getting there is hotter than anybody else. Portlaoise top the roll of honour with seven titles. Sunday is their 13th provincial final appearance, their third in four years.

Leinster has become locked down by big urban clubs. Eight of the last 12 Leinster titles have been won by Dublin sides with the other four shared by clubs drawing from large urban centres: Portlaoise (two), Garrycastle and Moorefield.

Urban domination is inevitable in Leinster but while Portlaoise is a large town with a population of 15,000, the club is effectively a small family, with a modest support base akin to that which defines Nemo Rangers in Cork. Their following is so compact that the players know nearly every one of their supporters.

Their playing base has never been massive but 'the Town's' power and sustained success comes from their consistent development at underage. Their football domination is even more remarkable in that they're also a successful hurling club.

Contested

Portlaoise's All-Ireland club football success in 1983 coincided with a hurling four-in-a-row between 1981-84. They have also contested two Leinster hurling finals.

Although they were relegated from senior hurling last year (they bounced straight back up this year), Portlaoise reached four finals in five years between 2007-11. In 2009, Portlaoise won U-14 Feile na nGael and Feile Peil na nÓg titles in the same season.

They have always been hugely ambitious in everything they do but of all the clubs scarred by the economic downturn, Portlaoise was unrivalled, having been initially burdened by a debt standing in the region of ¤6.5m.

The club took a costly risk by entering into a deal with Firestone Developments, who agreed to purchase their grounds for ¤19m, provided it got planning permission for a mixed development.

Having earmarked a new site on the edge of town for modern club facilities and multiple pitches, a pre-payment of ¤6.5m from Firestone allowed Portlaoise to purchase land in Rathleague and begin the development. Yet in December 2008, Firestone's bid for planning was rejected by an Bord Pleanála after an appeal from local residents.

Firestone serviced the debt in 2009 but having bought the land in Rathleague, Portlaoise were forced to ask club members to try and supplement some part of the funding requirement.

They were gifted sizeable porta-cabins by the Civil Defence, and local county council and a raft of volunteers fitted them as makeshift dressing-rooms.

Current Laois hurling manager, Seamus 'Cheddar' Plunkett provided the funds himself for a huge hanger and kitted it out as a gym.

Despite the threat of repossession hanging over the club, it really galvanised 'the Town'. It brought everyone closer together. Even those who had opposed the original decision to move returned and pulled their weight.

Portlaoise will never have the state-of-the-art facilities they originally envisaged but Rathleague now represents something much deeper and meaningful. Eight pitches, a hurling wall, gym and dressing-rooms were effectively built with their own hands.

Toxic debt still clings to the club but Portlaoise have reached a confidential resolution which has ring-fenced and protected everything they now have in Rathleague.

Safeguarding

Brokering that deal has been huge towards safeguarding and developing the club's future.

The resilience of 'the Town' has been visible everywhere. They have managed to keep winning, to keep on keeping on.

They have never known anything else. When Portlaoise won their last Leinster title in 2009, it came shortly after the tragic death of one of their best young players, Peter McNulty.

A remarkable closeness has always sustained this group in the face of tragedy.

Adrian Kelly's mother, Gretta, passed away suddenly before the 2013 Leinster quarter-final against Longford Slashers.

A few days later, Portlaoise came back from eight points down in the second half to win in extra-time. One of the game's decisive late scores was kicked by Kelly.

After retiring from playing last year, Malachy McNulty, Peter's brother, took over the team this season.

The day before they played Sarsfields in the Leinster club championship, his mother Violet passed away. Violet wanted the game to go ahead.

She was buried the morning after Portlaoise had dug deep to eke out a one-point victory against the Kildare champions.

Portlaoise have always had a remarkable spirit but they'll need it on Sunday more than ever against Ballyboden St Enda's.

Despite their domestic dominance, they haven't been able to crack the Dublin champions in the last decade.

Their last win against a Dublin club was against Kilmacud Crokes in 2004. In the meantime, they've lost to St Vincent's (twice), Kilmacud, St Brigid's and Ballymun Kickhams.

On Sunday, Portlaoise will try again. They are underdogs but they believe they can win. Because 'the Town' always do.

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